Published: July 11th 2012July 10th 2012
I'm actually writing this after just crossing the border into Belarus, a process that so far has taken 4 hours, so I'll hopefully add more when reaching Moscow!
Arriving at Cologne station our train (EN447) appeared on the departure board with the right number and time, but Moscow was not listed as a destination. It turns out only one carriage goes to Moscow and after Warsaw this one carriage is connected up with other carriages from all over Europe to form the train to Moscow!
Boarding was a simple procedure using a combination of basic German, English and pointing - something that served us well for the rest of the journey. After making our beds the rest of the journey passed pretty uneventfully until the Poland-Belarus border.
On the Polish side of the border Schengen immigration staff checked the passports of those leaving the EU. While the Russians on board had detailed checks our passports were given just a cursory glance - but the whole process still took well over an hour. Once these checks were complete the train slowly rolled over a bridge across the river that separates Poland from Belarus (I feel I should know the
name of this river - I don't) passing a large barracks, a system of sensors in the ground and a wooden hut containing a man with a gun in army uniform. This was a little disconcerting!
After stopping just across the bridge, not at a station with platforms - just some flat ground, some rather strict looking Belarus border officials boarded. I'm not 100% sure at this point but I think Russia and Belarus have a common border so we had to fill out the immigration card stating the entire length of time we would staying both countries - not just Belarus. The border guard disappeared off with the passports but they were returned to us 5 minutes later with a stamp and half of the immigration form - the other half has to be surrended on leaving hopefully Russia. Yay they let us in!
Once the border formalities were complete the carriages were pulled into a shed to have the wheels changed. Russia and Belarus use tracks that are spaced more widely than in Western Europe so to allow us to run on Russian tracks the wheel "bogies" need changing. This process took another two hours (you
remain on the train while this happens) and it tickled mine and John's engineering/geeky interests possibly more than it should have. It was an experience to say the least!
One oddity I think is going to continue at least to Siberia is the women who got on the train after the border point and during the wheel changing to sell food, fruit and beer. They were in no way official as far as I could tell but they were completely ignored by the border staff, police and engineers changing the wheels. It took a few firms "Nyet!"s for them to leave us alone - it was hard to convince them we didn't need anything!
We brough a few snacks with us but up until the Polish border there was a restaurant car so we had a good breakfast (I have a feta cheese and tomato crepe thing) though they only had lemon to put in the tea... The carriage attendant lady also sells snacks and provides free boiling water which will be useful for noodles and dried potatoes on the longer trips - this is standard practice on Russian trains!
I can now confirm that
Our carriage was shunted onto this train
yes Belarus and Russia have a common border - we were not woken up by angry Russians at 2am. In fact we both slepth through the border crossing so I'm not sure we even stopped.
We arrived two hours late but I suppose this isn't bad for a train that has run for 33 hours crossing 4 countries and 3 time zones. Next stop St Petersburg!
There are more photos below